The countdown to Best of Phoenix is on. Mark your calendar: This year's issue will be on newsstands September 26. What better way to warm up than by asking some local "experts" to list their own personal bests? This week, Eric Schaefer lists the five restaurants he misses the most.
Lately, my culinary cravings have gravitated toward restaurants that no longer exist in Phoenix. I've grown weary of glitzy restaurant openings and the Next Big Thing, and I'll go postal if I see one more menu with "deconstructed this" or "chocolate bacon that."
My list of five restaurants I miss the most, in no particular order:
Houlihan's Yes, that Houlihan's. But not the restaurant whose current iteration still exists in the eastern half of the country. I'm referring specifically to the Houlihan's that used to occupy a prime spot at Biltmore Fashion Park. Houlihan's was ground zero for the Phoenix bar scene (although I was too young to appreciate it) and largely responsible for perfecting such bar food staples as fried zucchini, buffalo wings, and potato skins. Thoughts of their "Wings and Things" appetizer still makes me salivate. My wife longs for their fajitas, which somehow seemed "exotic" back in the day. And their salad dressing, a combination of French dressing and cumbled bleu cheese, was spot-on. Houlihan's was the place to be back when Shea Boulevard was considered far-north Scottsdale.
Aldo Baldo A short-lived restaurant "concept" situated on the south side of Scottsdale Fashion Square near the old Circles Records, Aldo Baldo served contemporary Italian food with a modern, fresh décor. I think they had a red Vespa parked out front. I was only in eighth grade at the time, but I can still remember the calamari salad. I'm not sure why they didn't survive but think that the menu would have still been relevant and popular today. Does anyone else remember it?
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(Editor's Note: I do! And I remember that they played a loop of pre-recorded Italian men talking in the ladies room. Today that spot is home -- yawn -- to Kona Grill.)
Hops One of the original microbreweries in Phoenix, Hops had several iterations, but I'm recollecting its first incarnation in a stand-alone building near of Scottsdale Fashion Square. Microbreweries were still a new concept, and Hops' beer was fantastic. I knew that well, because it was easy to get served there as a high school kid! Equally as important, the food was fantastic and the environment lush. It declined in quality over the years and eventually shut down, but still left an impression on me and was, without question, my favorite place to get a beer when I was 17. Café Casino Located at 24th Street and Camelback near the original Cine Capri movie theater, Café Casino was a true cafeteria. Except they served French staples like Chicken Dubonnet, a perfect croissant, French onion soup, and a killer Napoleon. As I recall, it was actually part of a chain based in France. They closed by the mid-1980s. It seemed so ahead of its time, and almost "foreign" in what was really a developing cowboy town back then. Even today, Café Casino wouldn't seem out of place in an urban market like New York City or San Francisco. It exuded French "café culture" in a way that's tough to replicate.
L'Orangerie This stuffy homage to continental cuisine had a lengthy run as the fine-dining destination at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa, and is where several of Phoenix's most notable chefs cut their teeth. I went only once, in 1984, but still remember the meal as if it was yesterday. My dad let me join him at a business dinner and I knew it was a special privilege, and very expensive at the time. It's also where I ate my first quail egg, which seemed very avant-garde when I was 11. There hasn't been anything like it since then, as true continental cuisine seems to have vanished altogether.